It's Soho, but not as we now know it
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Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1
Before Jez Butterworth cast the countryside as the mysterious and lawless territory of his plays, the place populated by the scallywags of this, his 1995 debut, was Soho. Not the safe fashionista Soho of today, home to film companies and media multinationals with employees called Django, but the vice-ridden Soho of 1958 with crooks called Sweets, Potts, Baby, Skinny and Mickey.
All of them work for the unseen Ezra, the Jewish owner of Ezra’s Atlantic club in Dean Street, in which Butterworth sets the action. We never see Ezra, but his violently unhinged son Baby — played by a whippet-thin Ben Whishaw — stalks the place with the arrogance of an heir, and sometimes a sword.
The venue has a new act in the shape of a blond Elvis called Silver Johnny, a hot property who might break America with the help of Kray-like hoodlums and their contacts in showbiz. The deal is being struck in the Atlantic’s back room upstairs. We know the stakes are high because Potts (Daniel Mays) and Sweets (Rupert Grint) — supplier of pills that make the taker’s time go fast and urine turn black — are seriously on edge.
Potts, who discovered Silver Johnny in a Camden joint run by a “wop” called Luigi, wants his cut of the spoils. And everyone is wired to the hilt by Sweet’s sweets.
The deal — also unseen by us — goes fatally wrong. Silver Johnny is now owned by the competition and the play lurches towards a kind of Soho Alamo in which Ezra’s boys steel themselves for an attack on the Atlantic.
But Butterworth’s long-time collaborator Ian Rickson — who directed the original production — knows that the real meat and pleasure of this play is not the thriller plot, though that never hurts, but the vaulting language and slang with which everyone but the more lyrical Baby speaks. Butterworth knows it every bit as well as Damon Runyon knew how the Chicago hoodlums of Guys and Dolls spoke. Here, it becomes the weapon used by gangsters against each other to avoid becoming the runt of the pack.
As Potts, Mays delivers the Cockney physically as much as verbally. He bends and bows and accompanies the dialogue with the gesticulations of a tic-tac bookmaker on speed. Whishaw’s Baby, meanwhile, is a study of two kinds of terrifying — watchful and rampaging. It’s a superbly acted evening.
No one is more outstanding than Colin Morgan’s gofer Skinny, a small-time antisemite who is infinitely more vulnerable than the Jew he directs jibes at. And, for followers of Butterworth, this revival reveals an unexpected narrative from Soho to Jerusalem, a kind of hard-nosed lament for an unruly world before it was opened up to respectability by laws and lattes.
LISTEN WE’RE FAMILY
JW3, London NW3
l Few shows hold a mirror up to its audience as sympathetically and unforgivingly as JW3’s first play. Constructed from interviews of mainly London Jews by director Matthew Lloyd and writer/actor Kerry Shale, all of Jewish family life is represented here — or a lot of it at any rate. The cast — Tom Berish, Shale, Maggie Steed and Isy Suttie — simultaneously listen to (through headphones) and perform the voices of those interviewed. Subjects include a 91-year-old barber whose remembrances are delivered with lessons in Yiddish; a Crohn’s disease sufferer whose life project is to give her children the security that she never experienced; an elderly East End widow who lives with the weight and guilt of her husband’s suicide and a gay Jewish man who stays in touch with his heritage with regular bagel-buying outings to Brick Lane.
t’s not the first time this technique has been used to inform a play with a sense of super-realism. As the first theatre production to be commissioned by what has to be the most exciting cultural centre to open in London in recent times, Listen, We’re Family sets a high bar for the shows that will follow it. Sometimes the quirks and eccentricities recreated by this excellent cast – no doubt accurately - encourage us to laugh at the subjects rather than with them in a way that can feel like a betrayal of their trust. But as a form of play-making it works really well and that’s what counts. And there is an honesty about this funny and at times deeply touching portrait of a community that does justice to the openness with which the interviewees talk about their lives and families – and by extension, ours too.